Street Commerce

Pickle and pickle-juice vendor with stand prepared for the evening's trade, Eminönü, Istanbul, 2012. (Fuji X100). Click to enlarge.

Pickle and pickle-juice vendor with wares prepared  in advanced for the evening’s trade, Shore-front of the Golden Horn, Eminönü, Istanbul, 2012. (Fuji X100). Click to enlarge.

Invented Traditions

Over the last fifteen years or so, I’ve leisurely waded through the canon literature of the study of the emergence and solidification of nations and national identities: Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Eric Hobsbawm’s Invented Traditions, Pierre Nora’s five-volume study of the national memory of France, Patrick Geary”s The Myth of Nations, and, most recently,  Timothy Snyder’s powerful studies of identity and hegemony in Eastern Europe (Reconstructed Nations, Bloodlands, etc.), works that illuminate the translation of contrived national identities into viciously exclusionary and expansionist nation states.

A by-product of this reading is the realization that most “national” traditions — be they architectural, musical, dance, culinary, sartorial, folkloric, etc. — are either blatantly invented or appropriated from  traditions shared in common with neighboring peoples in an attempt to establish the legitimacy and hegemony of one’s own group at the expense the identity and power of others.  Invariably, such traditions are posited as being products of an imagined national “golden age.”

Pickles and Mackerel

So, what does the disquisition above have to do with pickles and grilled mackerel in Istanbul?

First, note  the costume worn by the pickle vendor in the photo at the top of this post:  a) an imitation fez made of cheap velvet rather than traditional wool felt, and emblazoned with the Turkish national crescent and star and with a stylized tulip, the latter a logo thought up for Turkey’s national tourism authority by a PR or “branding” agency; b) a mass produced embroidered vest of the sort sold to tourists in souvenir shops and bought in bulk by amateur folk-dance troupes; and c) a brightly colored waistband over wide pantaloons (the latter not visible in the photo).

A decade ago, the very same vendors dressed in normal street or work clothes and the carts from which they were sold were simple affairs of glass panes and unfinished or laminated wood.

At the water's edge: Neon-lit canopied faux-traditional caiques, floating kitchens preparing and serving grilled mackerel sandwiches to passersby. In the foreground, an angler in search for his own dinner. Illuminated in the far distance, the Süleymaniye, the mosque complex of Sultan Süleyman the Law-Giver ("Suleiman the Magnificent"), a master-work of the 16th-century architect Mimar Sinan. Galata Bridge, Istanbul, 2011. (Fuji X100). Click to enlarge.

Mid-distance at the water’s edge: Neon- and lcd-lit, faux-traditional, canopied launches — floating, wave-tossed kitchens grilling and serving  to passersby mackerel sandwiches garnished with lettuce and onions. In the foreground, an angler in search of his own fish dinner. Illuminated in the  distance, the Süleymaniye, the mosque complex of Sultan Süleyman the Law-Giver (“Suleiman the Magnificent”), a master-work of 16th-century architect Mimar Sinan. Galata Bridge looking across the mouth of the Golden Horn towards Eminönü, Istanbul, 2011. (Fuji X100). Click to enlarge.

Second, note the boats of grilled mackerel vendors moored at mid-distance in the second photo above.  The boats are topped with canopies in the shape of stylized fantasy imitations of those that once adorned the excursion launches of the Ottoman elite — with the addition of multicolored neon and incandescent lighting.  A decade ago, such boats were plain wooden skiffs with simple canvas or plywood roofs to block seasonal sun and rain.

I don’t remember exactly in which year this “make-over”of pickle vendors and mackerel boats occurred, nor am I certain why and at whose behest.  My guess is that it was mandated by the local district municipality or by the tourism functionaries of the municipality Istanbul.  More interesting is why ….

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Galata Bridge, Istanbul Turkey, 2012. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

Flower Vendor, Galata Bridge, Istanbul Turkey, December, 2011. In the background to the right: a few of the ubiquitous amateur anglers who line railings of the bridge year-round in expectation of an evening’s meal. (Fuji X100.) Click to enlarge.

The red flowers are kokina çiçeği. Kokina is a Turkish loan word from the Greek kokinos, meaning “red.”  In Istanbul kokina çiçeği are sold as New Years decorations, a custom borrowed from the city’s once-large and vibrant ethnic Greek population.  Botany is not my strong suit, but to me kokina çiçeği resemble a variety of mistletoe — not only in their appearance but also in their function as mid-winter talismans. In many ancient cultures, mistletoe varieties — especially those parasitic to oak — were associated with virility, fertility, and regeneration, part of the reason why, in the Anglo-Saxon world, men and women who pass together under Christmas-season mistletoe traditionally were compelled to kiss. Mistletoe may also have been the “golden bough” that Aeneas took with him as a placating gift on his trip to the underworld and, thus, the inspiration from which Sir James George Frazer’s took the name for his famed late-19th- early-20th-century study of myth land legend.  The flower seller, by the way, is an Istanbul Rom (Gypsy).  In much of southeast Europe, urban Roma labor long hours in the ornamental flower trade, as street vendors and, less visible to the casual stroller, as wholesalers as well.  Central and Eastern Europeans who accuse Roma of willful unemployment are blind to the those who labor at the base of the pyramid of urban economic activities.

Technical footnote…

When processing the raw file of this photo in Lightroom, I couldn’t resist the temptation to nudge the red-saturation slider slightly rightwards!

Cotton candy and toffee vendor at day's end.  Uskudar, Istanbul, Turkey, 2013. (Fuji X100.) Click to enlarge.

Almost sold out! Cotton candy and toffee vendor hastening home at day’s end. Ferry landing, Uskudar, Istanbul, Turkey, 2013. (Fuji X100, manually zone-focused while walking.) Click to enlarge.

Please indulge me while I repeat in short what most of us know quite well at length …

The last third of the 20th century saw the rise and flourishing  of socialism for the rich, generously financed by the taxes of those in the middle and working classes.  From America’s infamous Lockheed bailout in the 1970s to the billions of dollars in public funds poured into the craws of General Motors and banks “to big to fail” in the aftermath of the world financial implosion of 2008, large enterprises have been saved by funds cannibalized away from the expenditures on infrastructure and human resources on which our futures depend.  Small enterprises and individuals, on the other hand, are allowed to go under.  In Western Europe, semi-governmental lending institutions provide established companies with capital o expand and  commence new ventures.  Any one else who wants to obtain  capital and buy time to go “entrepreneurial” is left to their own devices and fed 19th-century platitudes about self-reliance and free markets. 

And now a few words about the photograph …

The photograph above shows a familiar presence in Istanbul: the wandering cotton candy vendor. His capital: a long pole, a box of pushpins, and a will to walk the parks and promenades of the city from dawn to dusk.   His stock: a few dozen bouquets of spun-sugar “cotton candy” and a few score cellophane bags of cheap toffee.  His income: minimal.  But the uncontrolled economic chaos of Istanbul at least gives him a chance to earn something.  In the US, he would be checked for his pedlar’s license, inspected for hygiene, and arrested for loitering if he stood still.  In Western Europe, he would have to follow months-long mandatory courses in retailing and management.  And, wherever he worked, if and when things went bad, he would be deemed “too small to be saved.”

A technical footnote …

One of the obsessions of many internet photography weblogs is the micro-second differences between automatic and manual focusing speeds of different makes and models of digital cameras. The photo above was taken using a notoriously “slow-focusing” camera — the Fuji X100 — by “zone-focusing” in advance in manual mode just as the vendor and I were approaching one another at a brisk pace.  Slow compared to cameras used by sports and wildlife photographers, most certainly, but no slower than my 1960s twin-lens Rolleis!

Shine Osman's "Looking Glass Shine" shoeshine stand, Kasım Paşa, Istanbul, 2013. Note the minimal footprint, functional design, recycled materials, and curious Donald Duck, Goofy, and Mickey Mouse themed curtains. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

“Shine” Osman’s “Looking Glass Shine” shoeshine stand, Kasım Paşa, Istanbul, 2013. Note the modest footprint, functional design, recycled materials, and curious Donald Duck, Goofy, and Mickey Mouse themed curtains. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

The ideal real estate “development”project: A sidewalk shoeshine stand on one the main streets of Kasım Paşa, the mostly religious, mostly working class quarter of Istanbul that numbers amongst its better known sons Turkey’s present prime minister, Recıp Tayip Erdoğan.  The structure comprises a minimal intrusion into public space.  Its form is dictated by its function and by the materials at hand.  The business itself is geared to the needs and flows of the pedestrians traffic that passes it.  The Romany origins of the proprietor point to a wealth of lessons about urban sustainability that remain to be learned from the past and present roles of urban Roma.  More on this in a future post …